Review – “Country Music” by Ken Burns, Final Recap

If you’re a country music fan and are disappointed that your favorite artist didn’t get enough screen time in the Ken Burns film on country music, well guess what, your favorite genre did, and by the most revered documentary filmmaker of our time, and before rock n’ roll, pop, the blues, soul music, or hip-hop were given their opportunities. The 8-part, 16 1/2 hour Country Music documentary aired on PBS over the last two weeks was a gift to country music fans, and to all devotees of music and American culture, and should be remembered as such. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect for what it was. It put the names and faces of many forgotten country artists back into the consciousness of millions of people, and did the same for many songs and albums. It labored to portray an often beleaguered and maligned form of musical expression as something of importance to the very fabric of American society, and something tantamount to high art. And in archival form, Country Music will continue to deliver this gift into the future.

It will take some time to tell just what impact the documentary will have on the music itself, and the artists and songs featured, if any. Beginning early next week, we will be able to see if the music highlighted raised a blip in sales or streams, but it may be months or years from now before we can fully assess if the film helped set into motion a revitalization of interest in actual country music as opposed to what is portrayed as such on today’s country radio, and in popular culture.

The political moment in which the film was aired likely played a role in how it was received as well, at least to some extent, not only from the way Ken Burns felt forced to speak more about Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” in the run up to the airing as opposed to the artists and songs featured in the film itself, but even how an impeachment inquiry into President Trump towards the tail end of the series likely ate into the attention span of some viewers. The incessant complaints by some country fans and reviewers of who was forgotten in the film as opposed to a consensus of its overall importance likely took some steam out of its positive impact for country music as well.

Nonetheless, important work was done in the documentary, even if Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan at times seemed inclined to sway the story line in the direction they wanted it to go, as opposed to the direction the story of country music would have naturally took it.

“I don’t think I’d enjoy country music if it stayed the same. It’s not supposed to,” Vince Gill said early in the final episode titled “Don’t Get Above Your Raising.” Episode 8 was named after a song popularized by Ricky Skaggs, who was one of many artists featured in the film’s last installment.

Similar to two other episodes earlier in the series, Episode 8 was bookended by the story of Johnny Cash, starting out with an explanation of how his career had hit a rough patch, and the reverberations that happened when Columbia Records dropped the Hall of Famer from their roster. Johnny Cash albums weren’t selling well, and he was playing for crowds of 200 people in 2,000-seat theaters in Branson, Missouri. Daughter Rosanne Cash felt guilty, because just as her career was taking off, her father’s was deteriorating. But it also set the table for Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin, which revitalized his career in a way nobody could have ever expected, and is likely the reason he was such a central figure in this film due to Cash’s universal recognition across generations, and acceptance well beyond the realm of country music.

Episode 8 told the story of the “neotraditionalsists” as they were called—Ricky Skaggs who’d tutored under Bill Monroe and played with Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis who went from frying catfish at the Nashville Palace near the Opry House to selling 3 million copies of his debut record, and George Strait, who not only had more #1 singles than anyone else in country music history, but more than any American in any genre of music, yet like Randy Travis, only received a passing feature in the film.

Reba McEntire was also featured in the final episode as the barrel-racing girl from Oklahoma who Nashville first tried to turn into a Countrypolitan star, but then became a neotraditionalist herself, and eventually a major star well beyond country music. “In all walks of life, in any job you have, women have to work twice as hard, sometimes three times as hard, and that’s just the way it is in life,” Reba said. “And you do it. And you do it with a smile. And you win.”

Dwight Yoakam came next—the lanky-legged Kentuckian who moved to L.A, was too country for the country bars, and started playing with punks until he got his big break. His label didn’t like him using the word “hillbilly,” but he was trying to take this pejorative term and turn it into one of endearment. He cussed in the press over the dropping of Johnny Cash, and nobody know where he fit. But when his first record sold 2 million copies, they began to follow his lead. The Judds also found early success, and quickly cemented their place in this history of country music.

Soon alt-country began to emerge via artists like Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Kathy Mattea, though for some reason the documentary didn’t name it by that name (or name Lucinda Williams, who was just as important as anybody to it). But songwriting was still very important on the non commercial side of country, and this led to the story of the Bluebird Cafe, and ironically, the biggest commercial star in country music, Garth Brooks, who got his big break in the listening room after being rejected by every major label in town. A rendition of “If Tomorrow Never Comes” won over the right executive, and a few years later Garth would be selling out four consecutive nights at Texas Stadium, and swinging from the rafters on suspension wires.

The documentary didn’t name the “Class of ’89” by that well-adopted term either, but did explain the ascent of Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt, even if it was in the same fly-by manner George Strait and Randy Travis were treated with. Vince Gill got a little more notoriety in the film, specifically through his song “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” which he started writing after the death of Keith Whitley, and Gill finished four years later after the death of his own brother.

In a film full of touching moments, they may have all been eclipsed when footage was shown of Vince Gill performing “Go Rest High On That Mountain” at the memorial service of George Jones conducted at the Opry House in Nashville. As Vince fought to keep his composure, and George’s widow Nancy and her daughter sobbed uncontrollably with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, and Jamey Johnson and his young daughter sitting near their side, it was hard to not join in on the tears.

You had to know that Garth Brooks would be play a big role in the final episode, and he should have from the financial impact and the affect on popularity he had for country music. But as Trisha Yearwood says, “There’s nothing pop about Garth Brooks. His show is pop. But his music is more country than I will ever be.” And it wasn’t just Garth who benefited from the commercial explosion of country music. Sales of country went from $460 million to $1 billion across the board. Even an artist like the more folk-oriented Mary Chapin Carpenter had 5 platinum albums in a row during the era.

The long-time producer for Garth Brooks, Allen Reynolds, had some of the best quotes not just of the episode, but of the entire series. “Record labels have a terrible tendency to chase whatever is the current hit,” he said. “I’ve always said that marketing men would clone today’s #1 forever without a sense of guilt if they could get away with it, just because it would eliminate risk.”

This led to a discussion of the trappings of country music’s commercial climate that is still very much in place today, as a video of Billy Ray Cyrus played in the background as the pinnacle of hyper-commercialization, as well as images of news stories of the Telecommunications Act being signed into law by President Clinton which allowed the rabid consolidation of radio station ownership. “Now instead of having a lot of possibilities to try and get your record out and see if the public will respond, you’re going through the eye of the needle,” Allen Reynolds said. “And a guy who’s programming for 1,300 or 1,400 stations, it’s his say so. And if he says ‘no,’ that’s it.”

Though much has been made about the attention Johnny Cash received in the documentary, in the final two episodes, Emmylou Harris felt like just as much of a focal point, and for good reason. Even though some still consider her a folk artist turned country star, few did as much as Emmylou to revitalize the roots of country in her career, including being the catalyst for the reopening of the Ryman Auditorium when she played a live video concert there with her Nash Ramblers band, and invited Bill Monroe to join her on stage. Only 200 people were allowed in the venue at the time, and nobody in the balcony (or under it) for fear it could collapse in the abandoned building.

“Country music is perhaps a reminder to us of where we all came from, and not to forget that,” Emmylou said. “Not to constantly be recycling and trying to go back. You can’t go back. We’re all different. Every generation is different. But we mustn’t forget where we came from, because it’s going to make the music that we make in the future better.”

This might have been one of the underlying points the filmmakers misunderstood. Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan seemed to spend a lot of time trying to tell us that country music was never one thing and is too vast and varied to define, as opposed to trying to help us define it under the umbrella of the shared experiences of rural and working class people put into song, and unfolding like a tapestry with all the various stories and experiences rolled into one. Even if the definition is complex, and different for different people, the idea that country music has a definition and does fall within boarders is something the film should have labored towards, even if no conclusion were come to.

The connection the fans feel to the music, and what it means to them should have been dwelled upon more as well, just as much as the careers of Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell, Don Williams, and the many others who didn’t make the final reel. But Kathy Mattea telling a story in the last episode about a fan coming up to meet her on the day her mother died, and just sobbing in her presence spoke to just how much country music means to people, regardless of where its origins lie, or who deserves rightful ownership of it. “That’s country music,” Mattea said of her experience with the grieving fan.

Dwight Yoakam said of country music near the end of the film, “It rose up out of nothing, uneducated, from the soul.” That feels as worthy of a definition as any.

The Ken Burns Country Music documentary closed out with a rush of pictures of country legends and new stars playing out across the screen while “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” played in the background. It included Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Taylor Swift, Sturgill Simpson, the Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith, Little Big Town, and Brooks & Dunn, who also didn’t receive any real time in the 16 1/2 hour presentation. But as writer Dayton Duncan said, their job was not to put together a hard history or dry encyclopedia of country music, but to tell its story through its most compelling characters, songs, and moments, knowing not everything and everyone would be recognized. And they more than accomplished this goal.

Perhaps in hindsight, telling the story of country music in ten episodes as opposed to eight would be the only way to do it proper, or perhaps cutting off the story at the Class of ’89 to tell the rest at a future date in new episodes would have been better. But even if you opened up the film to another 20 more artists, there would still be people complaining about 20 more who were forgotten. That’s just the way of these things.

But better to have the stories told that were instead of none at all, and at a time when country music has arguably never needed a reset more. Many will tell you that country music has never been in worse shape. But the truth is that in 2019, as country music emerges from the Bro-Country era and the infection of EDM influences via artists like Sam Hunt, we’re in the midst of a slow, but substantial traditional country resurgence.

From Chris Stapleton, to Luke Combs, to Jon Pardi and others—as well as the continued emergence of independent country artists like Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks enjoying mainstream-level success—the music is slowly turning back to its roots, as it always has, and as PBS’s Country Music illustrated time and time again. Perhaps the airing of the film will put even more spirit behind this current resurgence to keep the circle that felt more strained than ever a few years ago from remaining unbroken.

But whatever the ultimate impact, it can only be positive, and country fans can only be grateful that it was their favorite music, and their favorite artists that were memorialized in this manner, not just for 2019, but for generations of country music fans to come, including the ones Country Music undoubtedly created.

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All episodes can now be streamed online.

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